I just returned from a visit with my brother who lives on the other side of the country. Because of the distance we seldom visit with each other; and consequentially, we seldom have a reason to reflect on the life we shared as children. Spending ten days together has given me reason to reflect.
My brother is five years older than me. Because of this age difference we did not compete physically with each other. But as the older brother he was always held up as a model for me to emulate. He was industrious; by the age of twelve he had a job mowing the lawns of two or three neighbors. As the years passed, it was accepted that I should take his job when he found a better one.
I remember one job I was reluctant to take on. The day I was to go to work, I did not go. Instead, I went out to a field behind the house where we lived and played alone for three or four hours. I returned home at the appropriate time as if I had mowed the lawn. I did not understand that the man whose lawn I was supposed to mow would call my mother when I did not show up. I just was not as industrious as my brother.
When it came time for us to go to college, my brother was accepted at a military academy and followed that with a career as an officer serving our country. I went to college and a religious seminary to become a minister in the Christian Church, but I could not follow that honorable career. Instead, I figuratively went out into to field to play again. I decided to become an oral storyteller.
I have always felt a certain sense of insecurity about the career decisions I have made in life. I tried to capture this sense of vulnerability in a one-act play I wrote some years ago. I recently revisited this story while working on my memoir.
David: Father of the family, early forties, solid, athletic build, dressed in jeans and sports shirt.
Margaret: Mother of the family, a young forty, slender build, dressed in business suit in Scene two.
Denise: Sister of the father, early fifties, matronly, dressed in skirt and blouse.
Jon: Seventeen year old son, built like his father, dressed in jeans and t-shirt.
Mickey: Daughter of family, thirteen, built like father and brother, dressed in jeans and sweatshirt.
Kitchen: has a warm feeling, wood cabinets, wood floors, walls are warm yellow in color.
David is cooking spaghetti. He is comfortable in his kitchen. On the counter is a glass of wine. A radio is playing a sports talk show, scores are being given. Mickey enters right and puts down her books. David turns off the radio.
David: Hey did you hear the news?
Mickey: (stop and frowns) What?
David: You’ll love this; the Flyers traded Tim Kerr for a defenseman from Boston.
David: I’m not sure, something like Tork, or Cork, I just caught the end of the news.
Mickey: Bourque! (shoulders drop down) Oh, my God! Dumb, dumb, dumb! They can’t do that…just for that I’m not watching them…he better win the Norris Trophy…Jesus, they traded twenty percent of their offense! (Pause) Besides, he’s ugly! How can they do this to me!
David: Good, then we don’t have to waste our money going to Flyers’ games; we can get tickets to the Sixers!
Mickey: Bullshit! I might bitch, but I still love my Flyers (stands tall), a fan forever! (shoulders drop again and she sits down at the table).
David: Ah, the tribulations of a loyal fan, I can see you need something to pick up your spirits. (David picks up a piece of paper from the kitchen counter and crumbles it. He shoots it, basketball style toward a wastebasket at the side of the kitchen stove). There, I missed. Bet you a quarter I can beat you in a game of Horse.
Mickey: Nah, I got homework.
David: Then we’ll make it short, best of five for the World Championship, the Super Bowl of scrap paper!
Mickey: More like the toilet bowl!
David: I know I can beat you.
Mickey: Just for that we’ll make it interesting, tickets for a Flyers playoff game against my washing dishes for a month.
David: You got it! (David places a kitchen chair ten feet from the wastebasket. Mickey moves behind the basket to return the scrap paper. Jon enters right, sits down and drops his books on the table. He picks up the newspaper).
Jon: How long till supper?
David: (Distracted by Jon’s entrance, he misses his first shot) Damn it! Be half an hour.
Mickey: (She returns the scrap paper to her father) Choke! Choke! Choke!
Jon: When’s Mom coming home?
David: (David stops his arm in the middle of the second shot) You don’t listen Jon, I told you this morning, she will not be home until tomorrow night (Jon drops the newspaper and stands up to exit stage left. David misses his second shot). Shit! (David turns to Jon) Hold on a minute (David glances a look back to Mickey) Mickey let’s finish this game later. I want to talk with Jon.
Mickey: That’s not fair, you’re already down two!
David: Later Mickey (Mickey turns and exits stage left and Jon stands motionless by the table. David walks over to the stove and checks the spaghetti, then comes to the table. He touches his son’s shoulder and speaks softly) I got a letter from your school today, you’re failing physics.
Jon: So what?
David: Hand draws back and he speaks in an irritated voice) So what? So don’t you remember last summer? Your Mother and I tried to talk you out of taking physics. You knew the trouble you had with chemistry last year.
Jon: It’s my life.
David: It is your life. Right, and you made a mistake, and you will have to work it out. The school wants you to work with a tutor. Can we agree you will work with the tutor?
Jon: Don’t worry about it, just leave it till Mom gets home (Jon starts to exit left).
David: (Voice rising) No! No I ‘m not going to leave it, your Mother is not here, there is no reason we can’t work this out! There is no reason we can’t decide what to do; and do it! (Jon stops and turns back to his Father) Now, do we agree that you will have a tutor in physics?
Jon: (Drops his head to look away as he speaks to his Father quietly) Why don’t you fuck off? Just get the fuck off my back.
David: (Take a step toward his son and stops) What? What did you say? You don’t tell your Father to fuck off! (Voice rising) I want an apology!
Jon: You want an apology? No, I want an apology. You have no right talking like that. ..it’s not your life…it’s not you failing physics!
David: (Voice drops to a less aggressive tone) Maybe you’re right, but I still deserve an apology.
Jon: And I still want an apology.
David: Well? What do we do?
Jon: (Drops his head but you can see a slight smile on his face) We’ll throw fingers, odds you apologize, evens I apologize. (Both throw three fingers. Jon turns to exit).
Jon: (Quietly with a smirk) I apologize.
Denise has entered stage right during the last of the confrontation. Jon exits left. David stands center stage.
Denise: I’ve come for the Wall Street Journals.
David: (David turns slowly toward his sister) I’m sorry Denise, I didn’t hear you come in. What is it that you want?
Denise: Back issues of the Journal. Margaret saves them for me (Denise walks over to the kitchen counter and pours more wine). You look like you need this.
David: (Accepts the glass of wine from his sister) Yes, a full glass, thank you, thank you. Dear sister, I don’t know where I go wrong. I know I have to talk to Jon. I practice in my head what to say. It all sounds so rational, so reasonable…but when I talk to him, the words are never right. I feel awkward, angry, I just cannot communicate with my son without sounding judgmental.
Denise: I’m lost, run that back a ways and fill me in before I arrived on the scene of the crime.
David: It was a letter from school, Jon is failing physics and they want him to work with tutor. We tried to talk him out of taking physics, but all of his friends are taking it. He thinks that he needs it to get into college. Normally Margaret handles these touchy subjects with Jon, but she’s out of town. I figured I could do it, just be rational and talk quietly; and ah, find a solution.
Denise: And it didn’t work.
David: Right, he told me to fuck off. I got angry. He was angry…
Denise: David, I’m not sure if my memory is correct, did you take physics in high school?
Denise: How did you do?
David: I failed.
Denise: I don’t think it takes a Ph.D. in psychology to figure out why both of you get angry and hostile. You are too much alike. But I will say this for Jon, his solution showed signs of a sense of humor.
David: Ha, ha, very good sister, you have me, but there is more to my anger and hostility, more than the fact that I failed high school physics. I think it has something to do with success and money. I feel that Jon is comparing me with the fathers of his friends. I’m not flying off in the company’s jet. I don’t have season tickets to the Phillies or Flyers. No, I spend my mornings writing and my afternoons cooking spaghetti and drinking wine. No wonder he wants to take physics…pause…and it also has to do with Margaret’s success and money. Ten years ago the kids didn’t know or care that their mother made more money than their father; today they know that she is more successful.
Denise: If money and success are so important, why don’t you go out and get some for yourself?
David: I don’t know that I can, I mean when I was younger I never saw money as a goal, today I’m not so sure…of myself, of the model I’ve created for my children.
Denise: Did we grow up in the same family or not? Did I come over here to see how my stocks are doing in the market?
David: Ah, yes but, the difference is that you grew up in the 1950’s. I grew up in the 1960’s…pause…enough, your Wall Street Journals are on the bookcase in Margaret’s office, pick them up on your way out. I have to put dinner on the table.
Denise exits stage right; David sets the table and starts to dish out the spaghetti.
David: Jon, Mickey, dinner is ready.
Jon and Mickey enter left. All three sit down at the table. They hold hands and say the Lord’s Prayer. For a minute they eat without saying a word.
Mickey: I changed my mind. I think Clarkie’s right. We can count on Bourgue to stop the power play. Besides, I think he’s gambling this new kid they drafted will take Kerr’s place on the power play. Kerr’s never put two good years together in his career, he’s like John Denny, gives you a good year then he gets hurt, no consistency.
Jon: What are you talking about?
Mickey: You didn’t hear? Flyers traded Kerr to Boston for Ray Bourque. Can’t wait to see what happens tonight. Would they dare boo Bobby Clark?
David: Get your homework done before you watch the game.
Jon: They on cable?
Mickey: You got it, nothing but pure hockey, no commercials tonight!
David: (Pause for a few moments) Hey guys, I have something to say to both of you about school and grades. You know I have never made a big deal about making grades; you do your best, that’s all I ask. School is an artificial measure of intelligence designed and conducted by people who make their own rules according to how they best function in the learning process. Many intelligent people do not do well in school. Nevertheless, if you want to go to college, you have to play by their rules. What I’m trying to say Jon–passing physics is not the most important thing in the world–but you signed up for it. I think you should work to get a passing grade. Try the tutor, that’s all I ask, O.K?
Mikey: You know I never thought we would hear Philadelphia Flyers fans call for Bobby Clark’s head. If Kerr has a good year in Boston, and the rookie doesn’t prove himself; and especially if the team doesn’t have as good a year as last; well, I wouldn’t be surprise to hear it. “Clark must go! Clark must go!”
David: Mickey, try to contain yourself. Do the dishes and your homework before the game. O.K.?
Mickey: Yea, yea, I only have a few math problems to do, won’t take any time.
The three finish eating. David gets up and leaves stage left, Jon carries the dishes over to the sink and Mickey starts to load the dish washer as the scene ends.
Margaret enters stage right. She puts down her briefcase and overnight bag. She is wearing a pants suit. She takes off her jacket.
Margaret: Hello, I’m home, hello.
As she calls out, she goes over to the refrigerator and looks inside for something to eat. She takes out a container of left-over spaghetti and puts some of it into a dish and into the microwave to warm it up. David enters left; he is wearing glasses and carrying another glass of wine.
David: This is a surprise.
Margaret: Oh, I could have stretched it, stayed and finished tomorrow morning, but I decided better to work late and drive home. I can sleep in tomorrow and do half a day, and not feel guilty; besides, I hate sleeping in motels. Anything happen while I was gone? (Margaret takes her spaghetti out of the microwave and goes over to the table to sit down and eat. David remains standing.
David: The Flyers traded Tim Kerr.
Margaret: Come on, give me a break. I just got home. I don’t want to hear about the goddam Flyers!
David: Denise picked up your Wall Street Journals.
David: And Jon is failing physics.
Margaret: Did you talk about it with him?
David: Tried to a couple of times; the school wants him to work with a tutor. I told him I wanted him to do it, he told me to fuck off. (pause, David smiles) Actually, it was kind of funny. We both got mad, you know, males nose to nose, ready to duke it out. I demanded an apology. He thought he should have an apology. I insisted; finally, he suggested we throw fingers to see who apologized.
Margaret: Throw fingers?
David: You know, like odds and evens, anyway he lost and made a half-hearted apology. I thought he showed some intelligence and a sense of humor…better than me, I was ready to duke it out.
Margaret: When are you going to grow up? What did you say the second time?
David: Huh, oh yes, at dinner; well, I told both of the kids, you know, I gave them my five dollar speech about school being a pain the ass, but unfortunately a pain we have to endure…(Margaret interrupts)
Margaret: David, when are you going to grow up? How do you expect your children to be successful in school when you are at home knocking the system?
David: What are you trying to say Margaret? Put it into simple words for my child-like mind to comprehend.
Margaret: ( She stands up and come to face David) All right, you want it straight and simple. It is about money and success, you will never have them because you aren’t willing to work in the system, to give people what they want, to take a job because it brings in money, to compromise your stupid ideals. Instead you stay at home, safe to criticize while you write your stupid stories and get sauced every night.
David: So who is going to cook the meals, clean the house and take care of the kids if I change?
Margaret: I could if you made more money. We could hire someone if you made more money!
David: I don’t want someone (emphasis on word, someone) to raise my kids, I enjoy doing it myself.
Margaret: Let’s forget it; I don’t want to argue any more. I’m tired, I’m going to take a bath and get ready for bed.
Margaret exists left, David sit down at the table with his glass of wine still in hand. He takes a swallow and stares at the wall. Jon enters from the left. He goes to refrigerator and takes out the left-over spaghetti and brings the container to the table without warming it. He starts to eat.
Jon: Mom’s home?
David: Yes the Hun has returned from conquering the world.
Jon: What were you fighting about?
David: The road to success, fulfillment and everlasting joy in the kingdom of Ronald Regan. Shit man, she’s right…in a way…I mean look at someone like Steven Spielberg, or is it George Lucas? I always get those two guys mixed up: anyway, the one that created Star Wars. Is he more creative, or just lucky? I think I have as much creative talent as either of those guys!
Jon: How can you say that? You’re full of shit. You’re not in the same universe with them!
David: Your right, bad comparison, but my point is: I have to believe in myself. You know Jon, I’ve always seen myself as slow, like a long distance runner; whatever I do accomplish in this life, it will be the result of a long, hard run.
Jon: Heavy stuff.
David: Sorry, I’m dumping on you, but I’m trying to get things straight in my head. I’ve spent a lot of time at home with you and Mickey: it’s been good, I don’t regret it, but I did give up time that could have been spent working…pauses…remember the boats we used to build out of tree bark?…shit…how would you remember, you were three…or the whiffle ball and bat…your swing was level, and good hand-eye coordination. I know you don’t remember the things we shared when you were little, but I could go on for hours remembering. I could do the same with Mickey…but those times are past history. Instead of puzzling over how to dump a load of dirt from your toy truck, you have to find a way to pass physics, to get into college, to find a job. Your Mother is right, I need to grow up and be a better model for a teenage son.
Jon: Dad, did it ever occur to you that I don’t need a model; maybe I can take care of myself. I can make my own decisions.
David: Ah, but you see Jon, that is the most difficult thing for a parent to learn. Kids grow up overnight. Just when you are getting good at anticipating their needs and fulfilling them, they don’t need you anymore…at least not in the same way.
Jon: And If I fail physics, that’s my business. And if I get an A in physics, that’s my business too.
David: Your right, Jon, when you become an adult, you are responsible for yourself…but…remember one thing…if you ever become a parent…spend time with your kids when they are young, they won’t remember everything, but it is important for them…and you…hey, it’s getting late, you better get to bed.
David hugs and kisses his son. Jon exits left. David goes back to cleaning up the last of the dinner dishes as he hums the theme from Star Wars. End
This story tries to captures a sense of the insecurity I have felt much of my adult life. It is probably the reason that at the age of seventy-three I still work hard at playing and imagining a perspective on life that is just a little out of the ordinary. Oh, about my big brother: he is a kind and decent human being; and a retired captain from the Coast Guard. So I do not have to worry anymore that he will find a new job and leave the old one for me. And I think he respects me for what I have become as much as I respect him for becoming what he was meant to be in this life. We were born into the same family, but we had a different path through the woods to follow.